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Criminals continue to hack email accounts and many are targeting REALTORS® and their clients. This scam is especially alarming in the Bay Area because home prices are high, inventory is low, and buyers are trying to close deals quickly because of the competitive market.

According to a recent news report, the email of a REALTOR® was hacked by criminals who had monitored the REALTOR®’s correspondence with her client. When it came time for the client to wire the remainder of the down payment to close escrow, the hackers sent an email message from the REALTOR®’s account to her client telling them to wire the money to a fraudulent account. Luckily, the amount was off and the client called the REALTOR® to verify the amount.

REALTORS® and their clients need to be on high alert for email and online fraud. The Silicon Valley Association of REALTORS® is asking REALTORS® to follow and share with their clients these prevention tips issued by the National Association of REALTORS®:

  • Immediately contact all parties to all of your upcoming transactions and inform them of the possibility of this fraud. Attorneys, escrow agents, buyers, sellers, real estate agents, and title agents have all been targeted in these scams. You can also download and distribute NAR’s online fraud prevention handout, accessible here.
  • If possible, do not send sensitive information via email. If you must use email to send sensitive information, use encrypted email.
  • Immediately prior to wiring any money, the person sending the money must call the intended recipient to verify the wiring instructions. Only use a verified telephone number to make this call.
  • Do not trust contact information in unverified emails. The hackers will recreate legitimate-looking signature blocks with their own telephone number.
  • Never click on any links in an unverified email. In addition to leading you to fake websites, these links can contain viruses and other malicious spyware that can make your computer – and your transactions – vulnerable to attack.
  • Tell your clients that if an email or a telephone call ever seems suspicious or “off,” that they should refrain from taking any action until the communication has been independently verified as legitimate.
  • Clean out your email account on a regular basis. Your emails may establish patterns in your business practice over time that hackers can use against you. In addition, a longstanding backlog of e-mails may contain sensitive information from months or years past. You can always save important emails in a secure location on your internal system or hard drive.
  • Change your usernames and passwords on a regular basis, and make sure your employees and licensees do the same.
  • Make sure to implement the most up-to-date firewall and anti-virus technologies in your business.

 

 

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Cybercrime is an unfortunate reality these days and has become a potential threat in real estate transactions. The Silicon Valley Association of REALTORS® is alerting members and other real estate agents to a recent scheme involving the wiring of funds directly to escrow.

Potential buyers have received emails allegedly from a title company or attorney providing wire information for use by the buyer to transmit earnest money for an upcoming transaction. The messages were actually emails that were intercepted by hackers who then altered the account information in the emails so the buyer’s funds were instead sent to the hacker’s own account. The emails appear genuine and contain the title company’s email information and/or logo, etc. When the buyer transferred their funds pursuant to the altered instructions, their money was stolen.

It is apparent in this type of scam that the hackers monitored the email traffic of either the title company or the customer and were aware of the timing of upcoming transactions. While in the reported instances a customer was induced to misdirect their own funds, an altered email could conceivably be used to cause misdirection of funds by any party in the transaction, including the title company themselves.

Although wiring funds directly to escrow is still viewed by the real estate industry as a better practice than having real estate agents physically transporting buyers’ deposit checks, the danger of hackers who are able to monitor Internet traffic and intercept emails from escrow officers to buyers and alter the wiring instructions to misdirect the buyer’s funds into the hacker’s own account is grave cause for concern. In such a wire fraud scam, if buyers transferred their funds pursuant to the altered wiring instructions, their money would be stolen with little or no chance that the money would ever be returned. Conversely, if sellers are to receive their sales proceeds by wire transfer from the escrow holder to their bank, this same type of fraudulent activity could occur.

To protect your funds and to avoid identity theft, members are encouraged to take immediate steps to secure their computer systems and email accounts to safeguard against this type of scam. Buyers and sellers should confirm all email wiring instructions directly with the escrow officer by calling the escrow officer on the telephone. In that conversation the correct account number information should be repeated verbally before taking any steps to have the funds transferred.

If there is any indication that buyers, sellers or anyone else has received questionable wiring instructions, your client should promptly notify their bank; you, as their real estate agent; and the escrow holder.

Here is a partial of online sources that can provide tips to protect your systems against cybercrime:
Federal Bureau of Investigation: http://www.fbi.gov
Internet Crime Complaint Center: http://www.ic3.gov
National White Collar Crime Center: http://www.nw3c.org
On Guard Online: http://www.onguardonline.gov

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